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It moved me. It dazzled me. Smacked my gob. Yet for decades, Carl Theodor Dryer’s original version of his silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was presumed lost forever.
The movie was cut and re-cut by censors, and the only known master negative was a victim of fire. This being the early half of the twentieth century, film was just that —film, material, a bit of plastic that hadn’t even met VHS technology, let alone a digital form that could be globally shared at no expense. No hilarious YouTube dubs, or trailer re-edits. A film’s life was finite, and many works from that era are gone for good.
Thankfully, humanity was spared the loss of Dreyer’s original Joan of Arc and, a negative having been discovered in a Norwegian mental asylum in 1981 (seriously), Renée Maria Falconetti’s stellar —and only— film performance can now be preserved for all eternity, as its creator intended it.
But what of the films that came and went in more advanced years, when the technology to keep them had been invented?
There was a time when surfing pictures like Gidget (1959), Biblical epics like The Robe (1953) and effects-heavy sci-fi blockbusters like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) dominated the box office. In the commercially-minded 1950s, it’s understandable that lazy cash-ins, trendy genre flicks, or sequels to either/both of these would make a ton of money on release but eventually fade from public consciousness. It’s probably not far off the mark to suggest that many forgotten films were meant to be forgotten. Hollywood suits were on the hunt for money-making ventures, disposable vehicles from which to launch matinée idols, who’d then go on to star in other forgettable cash-cows. It is show business, after all.
But the passage of time took other casualties. Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959), often cited as the spark of the British New Wave, was never intended to become a box office giant but somehow managed to strike a chord with the public and became exactly that. In terms of film history, it’s an important piece, essential viewing for a cinephile. Yet despite its immense popularity at the time, great reviews and cinematic heft, it rarely gets a mention these days. While it’s no longer considered shocking or gritty, it’s still as handsome and angry as its leading man, as undeserving of neglect as its leading lady.
A few years ago, I became obsessed with hunting down forgotten films; the hidden gems of cinema that would make me look cool for knowing them. I tracked down a download for Barbara Loden’s entirely unavailable Wanda (1970), patting myself on the back in the process. I discovered the marvellous niche ‘horror’ films of Val Lewton, and strutted down the street with my box-set. I managed, through eBay and Taiwan, to get my hands on Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) before it finally made its way onto Criterion DVD in America, followed by a Masters of Cinema release in Britain a few years later. For my eyes only were such neglected Brit-flicks as 1964’s The Pumpkin Eater (Jack Clayton! Anne Bancroft! Harold Pinter!) and 1967’s The Whisperers (Edith Evans! Bryan Forbes!). By finding and watching these movies, I felt —in a way only a self-aggrandising, twentysomething film student could feel— as if I was not only bettering myself, but also helping these movies not to be forgotten.
Even films by big-name directors starring big-name actors have somehow fallen by the wayside. Surely everyone alive in the Western world must’ve heard of Spielberg, but only staunch cinephiles appear to know his cinematic debut, The Sugarland Express (1974) — never mind that it features Goldie Hawn at her best and still stands up as terrific entertainment. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist (1973), a.k.a. the one horror movie that could surely be named by anyone alive, had a smash in 1985 with To Live and Die in L.A. How many people could name that movie now?
It’s largely thanks to Martin Scorsese that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is now revered as a classic. At the time it was released, this sympathetic portrayal of a serial killer led to the movie being trashed by critics and its until-then-respected maker being practically exiled to Australia. Scorsese saw it years after the fact, and, being a respected filmmaker himself by that point, championed it so heavily that people took notice. The film was saved, reassessed. Reborn.
How wonderful it would be if all the films undeservingly buried by time could have a happy ending like that one. We can all live without Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and I’m sure future generations will persevere without 2006’s Failure to Launch, but I’ll be damned if I let a conversation go by without throwing in a mention of Mike Hodges’ Black Rainbow (1989). Seeing as tense dramas about ecology, big business, fake mediums and bad fathers aren’t exactly hot right now, or ever, my attempts to raise this overlooked movie from obscurity are probably futile. Let’s face it, I’m no Scorsese. And, judging from cursory online searches, nobody else seems to like it.
But now we have the means to keep the movies we love from fading into the past, we should endeavour to do so. Norwegian mental asylums won’t always come to the rescue.